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Boondocks Speaks: An Interview with Aaron McGruder

After Sept. 11, Aaron McGruder's "Boondocks" comic strip was censored in many newspapers. Here he talks about societal hypocrisy, censorship, U.S. policy and media lunacy.
 
 
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Aaron McGruder, creator of The Boondocks comic strip, is both older than his 27 years (pissed off, cynical and focused) and a big kid (he snacks on dry cereal, possesses a drawing style influenced by Japanese anime and is devoted to all things Star Wars). Reached at home on a recent morning, he's listening to the soundtrack of the original film, for which he has a special fondness -- his first memory is of viewing it.

His job, which involves working from home and inking the adventures of a group of African-American kids adjusting to life in an integrated, predominantly white suburb and led by radical Huey Freeman, would be the envy of anyone who didn't understand the pressures of turning in seven strips each week, strips that take on the powers that be and that get pulled with some regularity.

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In the wake of the events of Sept. 11, McGruder's strip was pulled from numerous newspapers because of its dissenting politics. Since then, he's been going beyond his usual Boondocks material -- which includes discussion of political and societal hypocrisy -- to take on censorship, U.S. policy and media lunacy. When he's not inking, he's writing scripts for the impending Boondocks TV show and screenplays, his latest being a political comedy.

Q: You started addressing the terrorist attacks on Sept. 24. You got to it faster than other strip creators. What influenced that?

A: One, I push my deadlines closer than anybody else, or let's say it this way: I'm really late. The only other cartoonist that would address it head on is Garry Trudeau, and being the better cartoonist, he gets his strips in a couple days earlier than I do ... So I had more time to really think about it. [Also,] I think he didn't want to get into it that week. It was a big debate for me whether or not to do it so soon.

Q: Many papers have pulled your strips recently; the New York Daily News isn't running it weekdays. Does that flatter you or piss you off? Are you even aware of it?

A: I'm aware of it. It actually doesn't do either. I anticipated getting canceled by the New York Daily News while I was doing the strips ... I figured given New York, the sensitivity there, it wouldn't go over well and I'd probably get dropped from the New York papers. But for me it was a worthwhile gamble. And there's still no guarantee that the New York Daily News will ever start running it again. ... It's New York City ... and they've gone through a lot, and you can't really expect them to take the jokes well. I've tried to be really careful to not make light at all of the death and suffering, which, like everybody else, I feel really bad about. But I have a different perspective on things than what the media's putting out, and I thought it was important to voice that, and if it meant losing the New York papers, I think it was worth it.

Q: Do you pull back from ideas that seem too inflammatory or controversial?

A: Yeah! That's not just now, that's always. ... Especially when you're somebody that likes to talk about the president, there's just so much you can't say, for legal reasons ... You have to be very careful to never threaten the president. There has been only once in the past few weeks that the wording of a strip had to actually be changed for that reason. The editors looked at it ... it was one of the strips where Huey was calling the FBI [terrorist] hotline [to report George W. Bush] and the strip ended with, "Make sure you bring the really tight handcuffs." He was talking about going to the White House. It was originally written as, "Make sure you bring nightsticks." They said, "You know, that's not a good idea." And I said, "You're right."

Q: You get to address race, class and biracial issues, and the bullshit of politics. How satisfying is it to have a place to vent every day?

A: It's really satisfying sometimes, and sometimes you just don't have anything to talk about. You're like, "You know what? I'm not passionate about anything this week. I just want to relax." Certainly at a time like this, when you're sort of sitting home screaming at the television, you're like, "Oh wait, I don't have to scream at the television. I actually have a big voice" ... Then it's really, really good.

Q: How closely do Huey's opinions come to your own?

A: It would be inaccurate to say that Huey's opinions are my own. I think there's a broad opinion being put out through the strip with a combination of all the characters' voices, and it's really up to the reader to figure out what that is. Beyond that, I don't think the importance of the strip is about my own personal political agenda. I think the strip [challenges] people to think differently, and that to me is far more important than to have people thinking like me -- [I want] to have people questioning what they're told on a daily basis.

Q: Huey and [the innocent, biracial] Jazmine DuBois -- with their exchanges, there is just this whole other dimension to the Huey thing ... It's almost sweet.

A: It's supposed to be kind of sweet ... It's a really important dynamic ... . I'm not really good at developing that type of stuff a lot in the tiny spaces of the strip. So most of that stuff's gonna get played out on television.

Q: An announcement?

A: It's not an official announcement yet, but it'll be 2002. Hopefully -- it's Hollywood, so shit could fall through at any time.

Q: This must be exciting.

A: It's been a two-year process with several different networks, so at this point the excitement is way gone. It's been six- to eight-month negotiations at a time, having them fall through and starting again with another network.

Q: Are you going to explode into a merchandising bonanza?

A: It'll be tasteful. [Laughs]

Q: So you're going to be really rich.

A: You know, every time a summer movie comes out, people think they're gonna get rich off of the merchandise. Inspector Gadget didn't sell any toys. Yeah, we're gonna do it. We'll make some money. We could do it now, but we want to wait for the value to go up. It's going to be on television in a year ... It'll be some type of clothing ... It'll definitely be greeting cards.

Q: Do you have a fantasy strip?

A: It'll all be in the [TV] show. We're gonna be on a cable network and we're gonna be prime time, so there will be no limits. The show's gonna be more about the characters.